Tonya Pitts, the sommelier and wine director at One Market in San Francisco, fell in love with wine because of history. “There’s history behind food, there’s history behind a bottle of wine [and] there’s history with how you serve things,” she says. “And it’s all its history, and it’s a story. All of it.”
But Pitts’s successful 30-year career in the wine industry, fueled in part by her love of history, was not without hurdles. She faced unique challenges by virtue of being a person of color, and she’s not alone. Now, Pitts and others are crafting a new narrative around what it means to be a Black wine professional—and creating a new future in the process.
Black Winemaking in America
To appreciate the role Black individuals play in the modern wine landscape, one must first understand their role in the past. The Black community, in particular, has a complex history when it comes to winemaking. Though written records show that Black communities had a close connection to winemaking in the Western tradition, early circumstances left them without the opportunity to freely pursue these passions.
No truer was this than in colonial America. Enslaved Africans toiled in early vineyards, providing a bulk of free labor. In A History of Wine in America, author Thomas Pinney shares the telling 1850s account of a Southern wine enthusiast, who states, “with all the facilities we possess in the South, with our soil, climate and more particularly, our slaves, nothing can prevent ours from becoming the greatest wine country that ever was.”
Unsurprisingly, systemic barriers effectively limited many Black Americans’ ability to join the wine world. Most notably, the American Homestead Act of 1862 gave cheap land to white recipients only. Even though the act was repealed in 1976, it continued to cast a long shadow. Statistics from 2002 show that white people owned 98% of private U.S. agricultural land.
Indeed, the contributions of Black people to wine remained largely unrecorded for decades until 1940, when John June Lewis, Sr. founded Woburn Winery, the first Black-owned winery recorded in history. In 1995, David, Deneen and Coral Brown established their wine-making business at Brown Estate, which became the first Black-owned winery in Napa. Later, Iris Rideau founded Rideau Vineyards in 1997, the first Black-woman-owned winery in America.
While progress moved quite slowly for decades, it seems to have picked up speed since the turn of the last century. The Association of African American Vintners (AAAV) was founded in 2002 by Ernie Bates, Vance Sharp and Mac McDonald. Between 2020 and 2022, AAAV had a 500% increase in membership. Today the organization counts over 50 Black-owned vineyards, cellars and wineries in their membership. But there remains much work to be done: As of 2020, less than 1% of winemakers are Black, with approximately just 70 Black-owned wineries across America.
The Hurdles of a Black Wine Professional
Modern Black sommeliers and winemakers have made great strides to change the narrative and move the story of Black wine forward. At the start of Pitts’s career three decades ago, there was significantly lower Black representation in the wine industry compared to today. She recounts the mentorship of a Black sommelier who helped to expose her to wine and hone her skills.
“It was made easier because I had mentors, I had people that were there to guide me and believe in me and cheer me on,” explains Pitts. Not everyone is so lucky. Today, she aims to lend that same support to others. “I don’t want someone to have to go through what I went through, which was that feeling of isolation, even within being in a room full of people”.
Pitts believes Black wine professionals working today can chart their own paths. “Ten years ago, we probably wouldn’t have been able to say that,” she says.
But despite progress, major challenges still persist, like access to capital. Nearly half of white-owned businesses received bank loans in the last half of 2019, but less than a quarter of Black-owned businesses received funding.
“I think what holds us back within certain aspects is access to the funds, to the land, to the resources, the grapes, access to opportunity,” explains Pitts.
Marlo Richardson, founder of Braymar Wines in California, agrees. “Systematically speaking, we never really exist in a position to have the right resources and connections, the right path to follow,” she says. “Trying to get those connections and that network has been a challenge because I don’t come from a corporate wine background.”
That a lack of access to capital can also impact a Black wine brand’s ability to scale, Richardson adds. If a business doesn’t have enough money, it can’t procure inventory to partner with big stores or large wine sellers.
Some funding opportunities such as The Roots Fund and AAAV scholarships have been created to alleviate funding inequities, while other organizations have popped up to support Black drinks professionals. But much work is still left to be done.
Diversifying the Wine Industry
The modern era has brought a bevy of opportunities for Black members of the wine industry. Among them? Hybrid wine. Black cultures around the world have historically used other fruit for wines, in contrast to the European tradition, which revolves around grape wines.
“The Gullah Geechee [a group of descendants of enslaved Africans based in South Carolina] make wines from blueberries and elderberries. Yet that gets frowned upon because [it’s] not Eurocentric,” explains Tahiirah Habibi, founder of The Hue Society and a Wine Enthusiast 40 under 40 honoree. Brands like Kalchē wines, however, are helping to move such offerings into the mainstream with hybrid wines that incorporate indigenous ingredients and methods not seen in traditional European-style wines.
The modern sommelier scene also continues to make space for Black change makers. They include Mason Washington, a 25-year-old sommelier based in Atlanta. A highlights of his still-fledgling career? The creation of a hotly-anticipated Grand Cru Riesling under the soon-to-be-launched brand LELIYG, a collaboration with German wine producer Weingut Riffel. Washington’s focus on a Riesling marks a unique collaboration between a Black sommelier and a German winemaker.
“Sometimes I feel like Black-owned wines can be pigeon-holed, so hopefully this can help change this narrative,” says Washington.
And indeed, the narrative is changing. Today, a wealth of Black-owned wine labels, Black-owned food and beverage businesses, Black-owned wine shops, Black-owned spirits brands and Black-owned breweries continue to innovate and produce extraordinary products. They’ve flourished in spite of a complicated history that never seems to remain fully in the past. It fills people like Washington with cautious optimism.
“At the end of the day, you pave your own journey in wine, and everyone’s journey is different,” he says. “Everyone is not going to see your vision early on, but if you believe in it and put the work behind it, that’s all that matters. A vine doesn’t grow overnight.”